On Friday, a large area of the United States was faced with twin weather threats. A severe drought had turned parts of the Southwest into a hotbed for wildfires. Strong storms threatened to bring hail and tornadoes across the Central Plains.
More than 160,000 acres across New Mexico have already burned in recent weeks, and the National Weather Service warned on Friday of an “extremely critical fire weather area” over northeast New Mexico, southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas. It also described a “critical fire weather” area over the southern High Plains, which includes Texas and Oklahoma.
The Weather Service blamed wildfires’ increased risk on strong gusty winds, low relative humidity, and an abundance dry grass and brush. Parts of the Southwest — including large parts of New Mexico — have been seared by drought and raked by high winds, creating ideal conditions for wildfires to ignite and spread quickly.
“It’s been like hell. It’s been like we’re getting ready to burn up here in town,” said Bill Cox, who with his sister owns the Hillcrest Restaurant in Las Vegas, N.M., a city of 13,000 people.
Their city, about 70 miles east of Santa Fe, is the largest community near the Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak fires, which started separately this month but have merged into one and scorched more than 65,000 acres.
More than 950 firefighters have been fighting the blaze. Authorities have ordered evacuations of parts of San Miguel County and Mora Counties. Residents were warned to be on high alert. Strong winds, which were expected at 60 miles an hour on Friday, are the main concern.
“This emerging situation remains extremely serious and refusal to evacuate could be a fatal decision,” the sheriff’s offices in those counties said in a statement. Officials in San Miguel County reported that more than 275 structures were destroyed, including 166 homes as well as three commercial buildings.
Mr. Cox stated that the fire had started on a golf course and reached his property just outside of Las Vegas. The smoke filled the air and blocked roads.
“People are freaking out,” he said. “People are really on edge.”
Logs in the area are drier than the kiln-dried two-by-fours sold in hardware stores, said Mike Johnson, a fire information officer working on the Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak fire. “With the fuel conditions we have, folks need to be prepared not only for this fire, but from any new starts that are going to be established,” he said.
Mr. Cox stated that he had provided Red Cross workers with burritos and offered more the next time they visited his restaurant. “The whole community is stepping up and working together,” he said.
Another fire further north, Cooks Peak, has charred more that 55,000 acres of northeastern New Mexico since its start on April 17.
More than 520 firefighters are fighting the blaze. However, Friday’s high winds made it too dangerous to allow firefighting aircraft to join in the attack, said David Shell of the Southwest Area Incident Management Team. This team coordinates efforts to tackle the Cooks Peak fire.
“It’s scary out there,” Mr. Shell stated. “You have to have your head on a swivel because conditions can change quickly. If the direction of the wind changes quickly, you have to be prepared to react immediately.”
The fire is burning through the oak brush, dry ponderosa pine, and dry grass.
“On a scale of one to five, I’d say it’s like a six,” Mr. Shell described the combustible conditions. “It’s going to test our fire lines to the maximum.”
Scott Overpeck is a Weather Service meteorologist from Albuquerque. He said there was no relief in the forecast with only a few thunderstorms expected on Sunday.
“We really need the rainfall to really solve the problems,” Mr. Overpeck said. “But if we can just get a break in the winds, a break in the humidity levels, that will allow fire operations and firefighters to contain the fires.”
The weather is not the only factor that fuels the fires: Global warming makes it more likely to experience drought.
Temperatures rise, which causes soil and vegetation to become more dry, making it easier for wildfires to start. Climate change can also alter precipitation patterns, making dry areas even more dry.
Governor. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico on Monday signed an executive order urging the state’s municipalities and counties to ban the sale of fireworks.
Her office noted that New Mexico has experienced extreme drought conditions, with over 70% of the population reporting to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“Fire conditions across New Mexico remain extremely dangerous — it’s essential that we mitigate potential wildfires by removing as much risk as possible,” Ms. Lujan Grisham said in a statement.
Even though parts in the Southwest were facing dangerously dry weather, a strong thunderstorm over the Central Plains (which includes Kansas and Nebraska) had increased the chance of severe thunderstorms across the Central and Southern Plains through Saturday, according to the Weather Service.
According to the service, these thunderstorms could bring lightning and strong wind gusts, tornadoes, hail, and hail up to two inches in size. The threat of severe thunderstorms is expected to move eastward towards the Western Ohio Valley on Saturday, threatening the area with lightning and wind gusts as well as hail and tornadoes.
Source: NY Times